Natural and Artificial Networks: Mycelium and AI in Speculative Conversations

Sebastian Llovera Leo – Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design

Fungi is present everywhere, this organism surpasses by far in quantity the plant’s kingdom. Moreover, this kingdom is so important to the life and death cycle of nature that without it every system would fail. Our connection with Fungi is of that importance that we as animals are more closely connected with it than any other organisms (such as plants). Mycelium can be compared to the neurological networks of nature itself as it serves as a connector between everything that surrounds it. The Mycelium is a sensitive membrane that is constantly aware of any stimulus or change that is produced in its environment, as well its adaptation capabilities makes it an ideal system for information exchange. This quality of mycelium can also be compared to the way computers work and even to surpass their current powers.

At the same time, artificial intelligence technology has changed the way we connect with the world radically. Its functioning can be compared to the way biological neural networks work and similarly with the brain, the potentiality and complete characteristics of these systems is yet to be defined. When these systems are represented, they present similar visual characteristics that serve as a starting point for creative practices. I am interested in thinking about the differences and similarities of natural and artificial systems while thinking at the same time in the significance of agency within the creative process pushing this concept materially in the creation of artworks where human manipulation is not the only component.

The relevance and uniqueness of this project relies on the intention to generate discussions about how we perceive the world by utilizing scientific methods without being bound by the production of verifiable knowledge; while science seeks for concrete answers or goals, I believe that this artistic practice seeks for questions and possibilities, different ways of conceiving what is perceived by a thorough examination. What are the possibilities of practicing scientific methodologies without looking for certainty?

This project will consist in two areas of exploration. The first one would be creating 3D printed sculptures of artificial intelligence generated images of mycelium networks and neural networks hybrids to then inoculate them with real mycelium inoculated substrate, generating this way a living artwork that propagates in its own way in order to achieve this we would need to study and determine its qualities and behavior with the clay sculptures, utilizing different species of fungi. The second one would involve in a series of experiments with what is known as slime mold, this organism is known for its “intelligent” behavior in solving mazes and finding better and more efficient connections between different points of a system. Nutrients will be placed in petri dish-like structures containing artificial intelligence generated blueprints which will be then colonized with the slime mold in order to make it grow and create its own connections.

The final result will be having living-durational artworks that will be part of my final thesis installation that will be open to a wide variety of public at the Stamps Gallery located in Ann Arbor, besides being the central part of my written thesis to be published as well. Most of the work will be made in the Mycology lab run by Dr. Timothy James at the University of Michigan and with the help of professionals in the area. The exploration of such methodologies and the concepts that emerge from them would have a determinant role in the development of my thesis work as it provides the ideal scenario to engage in truly collaborative interdisciplinary practice. While I have experience with the before mentioned disciplines the complexity of the project would involve active collaboration from experts in the biological sciences and computer sciences, which opens a channel of communication between disciplines, being the most important the connections made during this collaborative project, which could lead to further explorations in the future.