Perhaps in search of new collaborators? Barnett, for instance, “collaborates” with slime mould.
“I’m interested in what we can learn from nature as individuals as organisations as a society,” she says. “For me as an artist it is a fascinating subject matter. It’s also my working material.”
Slime mould is effectively a supercell — a bunch of dumb cells that gather together to form a seemingly smart and mobile superorganism. You might find slime mould feeding on rotting leaves in its natural habitat, or in the laboratories of roboticists, who are fascinated by its high-level computational abilities and ability to network — all without possessing any organs.
Slime mould’s favourite food, those who have worked with it in the lab have discovered, are porridge oats. It can flow across surfaces in search of oats and when it finds them it will form tubular networks between different sources. If it’s not keen on its environment, however, it can escape.
A search on Google Scholar, Barnett points out, cites 27,000 academic papers that reference the organism. One of Barnett’s projects saw slime mould able to find the most efficient way to navigate a maze, when presented with four different options. In a key study, it was found to be able to successfully replicate the network of the Tokyo transport system. “Since this experiment the slime mould has mapped the world,” she says.
“What us over 100 years to develop took the slime mould 26 hours,” says Barnett. “Since this experiment the slime mould has mapped the world.” Currently slime mould is being used to help with the design of a regeneration project in London. “This is the first time the slime mould is going to be a fully paid consultant,” Barnett jokes.
Barnett is drawn to working with slime mould for the same reason as biologists, though she is far from being the first or only artist to use science to inform her work. She points to the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and his designs of mechanical wings, which were far beyond what the technology of the time could achieve. More recently there have been others like Brandon Ballengée, a botanist and artist who studies deformed art, and Ren Ri, who has created works using beehives.
Slime mould specifically poses interesting questions about what can be achieved collaboratively when there is no central intelligence system, she says. “Without any control centre, where does this intelligence live?” For Barnett, the answer to that question relies on continuous synchronous oscillation between the cells, with local interactions and a constant feedback loop.
“It demonstrates fantastic ability to communicate,” says Barnett. “When the slime mould meets itself it pauses and knows it’s there. Ot retreats and goes off to other areas.
“It forces us to consider, as individuals, could we improve certain skills by being more like slime mould? If we follow some very simple rules, will complex behaviours emerge?” And of course there is the consideration about that if super intelligence can be be achieved using a group of dumb cells, what could group of complex beings achieve? What it proves to her, she says, is that “If you’re reduced to simple elements there is something to be gained.”