Heather Barnett, "Physarum Experiment No: 013 - The Spelling Test" (still)

Heather Barnett, “Physarum Experiment No: 013 – The Spelling Test” (still) (all screenshots by the author)

Slime mold has one of the worst public images of any single-celled organism. For one thing, the Physarum polycephalum, as it’s scientifically called, has a gross nickname evoking a drippy texture and oozing shape, and its highest-profile appearance could arguably be as inspiration for the roving, destructive “The Blob” of B-movie fame. But really, the slime mold is a quite intelligent, fascinating being, and even an able collaborator in art.

Over in a corner of the recently opened “BioArt” exhibition Cut/Paste/Grow: Science at Play at the Observatory in Gowanus, which focuses on art involving genetic engineering and other “bio” experiments, I noticed a project by London-based artist Heather Barnett involving a maze and slime mold, and I became curious about the elegant patterns that the slime mold formed through her work. The whole exhibition, organized by the Observatory with Genspace, a nonprofit lab and place for biotechnology learning for scientists, artists, and anyone who is curious, was concentrated on artistic experiments with biological materials, such as DNA, bacteria, and living tissue, yet I found Barnett’s art to be the most thoughtful and beautiful approach to this offbeat form of art.

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Heather Barnett, “Physarum Experiment No: 012 – The Maze”

“For a few years now I have been attempting to collaborate with the slime mould, Physarum polycephalum, observing and manipulating its beautiful growth patterns and testing its intelligence and problem solving skills,” states Barnett on her site. Her “Physarum Experiments” featured in Cut/Paste/Grow are part of an ongoing project that’s as much research as art, and slime molds are ideal for experimentation. They’re easy to grow, and have an intelligence that has led some researchers to try out their skills navigating mazes or even comparing their routes to road maps of major cities, as the slime molds, whether working alone or merging with other molds to travel as one super organism, are incredibly efficient in finding the best paths to food. In fact, slime molds are so engaging for researchers that there’s even an upcoming feature length documentary called The Creeping Garden that focuses on “the work of fringe scientists, mycologists and artists” (including Barnett) and “their relationship with the extraodinary plasmodial slime mould.”

Wythe Marschall, co-curator of Cut/Paste/Grow, discussed Barnett’s work over email:

Heather is both an artist with a strong aesthetic sense and a curious person engaged with the world of very tiny, non-human organisms. She’s an artist, but she’s also, in a way—in a very old-school way—a scientist. Her repeated (and repeatable) works with physarum [slime mold] seem to develop unexpectedly, in response to her framing questions: What will the slime mold eat? What will it avoid? Where will it go? How long will it take to navigate the maze? This mix of rigor and chaos—unpredictability—is quite exciting.

In a more basic way, she works with fun yellow goop! This means she has the best of both worlds: She’s enjoying play (she often teaches children about science via physarum experiments) while also bringing back into the gallery a sense of a “Real,” a big natural describable world out there—the world we mess with in labs, the world we augment or destroy via technology. Her work is simple, aesthetic, and provocative. What more could an art-and-science space want?

Barnett documents her slime mold “collaborations” with videos which are quite mesmerizing, such as “The Spelling Test” where some well-placed nutrients lead the slime mold to spell out its name, and “Physarum Experiment No: 016 – likes/dislikes” on its food preferences. While science is central to this art creation, Barnett is obviously interested in creating a visual, and while you could argue that really there’s not much collaboration here, as the slime mold is obviously indifferent the aesthetics and just wants to eat, the resulting spindly patterns are surprisingly lovely.

YouTube video

Heather Barnett, “Physarum Experiment No: 013 – The Spelling Test”

So are you brave enough to invite the alien-looking smart little creature into your life? Well there’s actually the “Slime Mould Collective” where Barnett and other slime mold afficiandados share tips on growing and experimenting with slime molds in art and science. The collaborative art of the single-celled with the multicellular is still dawning, and who knows if it will ever actually expand — some artists might not find the idea of living materials particularly appealing — yet it’s cool to see artists working with the unexpected, and the slime mold certainly has many pleasing surprises behind its repulsive name.

Cut/Paste/Grow: Science at Play is at the Observatory (543 Union Street, Gowanus, Brooklyn) through May 11.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...