Art Imitates Life

An MIT Artist Used Slime Mold to Simulate COVID Spread

"Slime mold is a single-celled organism, but it forms cooperatives. It's very interesting to see its behavior, which you could describe as 'intelligent' in human terms."

12. 11. 20 by Dan Robitzski

Diemut Strebe, an artist who’s worked at MIT since 2010, recently in an MIT residency program, has a lot to say about the United States’ failure to contain or even meaningfully slow down the coronavirus pandemic.

But she decided to let a single-celled organism called Physarum polycephalum, better known as slime mold, do the talking. In a new project titled “HYDRA,” Strebe and scientist collaborators at the Santa Fe Institute and Australia’s Macquarie University plopped blobs of slime mold onto a map of the USA — one on each of the first ten counties to hit 1,000 cases of COVID-19 per day. They allowed the slime mold to grow, extending its unsettling tendrils outward, in a biological mirror of how the coronavirus spread across the country.

Futurism caught up with Strebe to talk about “HYDRA” — as well as her career of using cutting-edge scientific techniques to create poignant art. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Futurism: Hi, thanks for taking the time to chat! But before we get into “HYDRA,” I’d love to learn more about your background. I looked over a lot of your work, and I’m sure we could dive into each project for hours. But as a bigger-picture thought, you’re an artist who had a residency at one of the world’s premier scientific institutions — how did you find yourself in that role, and what’s it like to create art with career scientists?

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Diemut Strebe: Actually, it’s kind of an unusual story. I started out working with Noam Chomsky on a GMO beer I wanted to make. Along with a team of scientists, we encoded cornerstone iconic texts of human culture like “The Seven Deadly Sins,” quotes from Kant, Wittgenstein, Noam Chomsky, and others into the DNA of engineered yeast cells. We developed a design algorithm that reads out a mutated text, encoded by mutations in the synthetic DNA. The yeast has changed the meaning of the text and rewrote the famous human quotes. The main idea of the artwork has been to explore the edges of the breakdown of meaning in human language and the translational features of very different types of languages and how they still communicate with each other. The artwork was presented as a six-pack of GMO beer.

How did it taste?

DS: Oh, the beer was terrible, you can’t drink it. In many countries you’re not even allowed to drink it. In Europe it would be banned. It would be kind of a disgusting taste, you shouldn’t drink it, but it’s of course about the artistic statement.

So, I moved to the U.S. and met many other scientists. I worked on this unusual bioengineering project, regrowing Van Gogh’s left ear. It employs this striking technology that’s now in the spotlight, as mRNA technology, which is currently used for COVID vaccine production as well as CRISPR-Cas9 technology, not with a focus on health, but with a focus on human enhancements as a speculative approach on designing creativity.

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In addition to exploring various options of cutting edge biotechnology the project questions the stereotypic romantic idea of the artist as a genius, portraying the artist as being on the verge of creation and self -destruction. As if being sick, poor and insane is a kind of precondition to make true and authentic artwork. The banal step to regrow this ear, reflecting on that story, that is so iconic for Vincent van Gogh’s life, artistic career and his public perception, was meant to undermine the typical cliché, that is held even also in art theory. One could see it as a step of demystification.

And then the next project I developed is something I’m particularly happy about. Over the course of a five-year project, I was able to create the art project The Redemption of Vanity. Because of and as part of this project the blackest black on earth has been developed at MIT. We freed the color black from its exclusiveness. It has been previously monopolized by a British artist’s license. We opened the MIT patent for the use of all artists. The art project inspired a scientific discovery. You saw things like that a while ago like in the Renaissance, but I don’t see too many nature papers coming from art.

That project brought together the most extreme opposites in exposure to light. We used a $2 million diamond: diamond, which is the most reflective material on Earth, and carbon nanotubes (CNTs), which are the most absorptive materials on Earth, to make the diamond seem to disappear.

Both diamonds and CNTs are made of the same element, carbon, and just the atomic lattice structure makes the drastic difference in their appearance. Next to establishing a contemporary reference to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who was obsessed with “unified opposites,” the project focuses on the arbitrariness with which we assign value to objects and concepts. We are taking such a man-made system as serious and as forceful as if we would deal with the physical laws of nature. The devaluation of a $2 million diamond to just a black dot essentially can be been seen as a challenge to the art market.

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How do you go about actually approaching scientists to start a new project? Where do the ideas come from and how much do you depend on that scientist’s expertise?

DS: I always develop my art projects completely alone. The conceptual side is my dialogue with art and science. I always read papers and articles, hear lectures because I find science extremely imaginative. People see that feature much more related to the arts, but I honestly do believe that there’s enormous potential of creativity and sometimes really surreal concepts in science. Particularly in physics, to speak of quantum mechanics, and wave-particle duality, and superposition. It’s so counterintuitive to our everyday Newtonian world that it brings you to spaces of imagining you would not even be able to think of just by yourself. I think it’s extremely inspiring and I believe that art and science can do a lot with and for each other in various ways.

The combination of art and science and the communication between both fields is able to reassure the arts own avant garde role in contemporary times, by affirming a particular aspect of art theory of Romanticsm, which created a different understanding of the arts than in previous times, in which art has been rule based in many respects.

Science and technology shape our word substantially. In the last 200 years we moved away from the threats of nature to the direct impact of the technological world, which plays back into nature at some point. I’m very interested in catching this contemporary aspect of what truly casts and forms our world and how the future could evolve, and science allows us that like no other field. And that’s why I think the science-art interface is strikingly inspiring for the arts. I think art has the depth and the fantasy and the imagination to capture conceptually important aspect of the profoundness of science but can put it in new aesthetically languages and perspectives. Art sets the human central, puts perception central, while science is the attempt of a 3rd person objectifying description. Sensual perception as we experience it, is actually denied by science. For instance, science declines colors, smell, sound – which are the most profound aesthetic means – as having no ontological existence on their own right on any fundamental level. This goes even up to fundamental principles, such as space and time, or ‘spacetime’ as Einstein calls it, which is supposed to be not real on any fundamental level according to new physical concepts. But to us, it’s real.

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And on the arts: Science in this sense implicitly renders and outlines the ‘shining appearance’ of the arts as illusionary and essentially false. A perspective that matches art theory in very interesting ways.

All this shapes my artistic perspective, and to my belief the arts can potentially mean a lot to science as well by bridging the gap to the public in a non- illustrative way.

So let’s talk about “HYDRA.” Why slime mold? It certainly looks unsettling with its tendril-like networks, so I’d say it’s a good fit, but was there any specific reason you chose slime mold over other organisms? On the “HYDRA” website, you go into some detail about how the organism can appear “smart” or capable of learning. Did that factor in?

DS: Yeah, I think one reason was that the project allowed to catch portraying both, the actual situation in the U.S. with COVID and the lack of guiding measures for public protection against the virus by the parameters chosen for the experiment.

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In addition, I was interested in more general questions, being amazed by the smart talents of Physarum polycephalum in terms of navigation, decision-making, being even used for amorphous computing experiments, while having no nervous system, no neurons at all. 

I am very intrigued by the different forms of intelligence in evolution and also about the question of how purpose comes into play in biology versus physical concepts which describe the world as randomly moving atoms.

Going back to the maps: We could have introduced measures to interfere with the pathway, to block the slime mold expansion, using particular light waves or salt walls. We didn’t use those measures because reflecting on their absence defines in fact the analogy to the absence of measurements to COVID-19 on a federal level in the U.S. It is, so to speak, the silent horror of the installation. 

That was a key idea: to catch both these aspects. You don’t express only the spread, but you also portray the fact that way too little was done, particularly in America, to fight the disease. Obviously, the administration could have done substantially more to control the spread quite more effectively. 

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My Australian colleagues Chris and Daniele have set up this experiment in a petri dish into which they added the slime mold and the food sources. In planning the experiment, we started out with a threshold of 1,000 cases, which was a relatively high threshold. The food source concentration was proportional to the infectious rate which has been proportional to the death rate, and Physarum polycephalum kind of spread out unabated. Experiments with slime mold are difficult to make — it was a terribly long-lasting, time-consuming experiment even for this very short video.

Telling a little bit more about the background of this project: It was not only concerned with human intelligence and its limitations, but also how evolution stands in the context of different forms of life. Slime molds are single-celled organisms, but they form cooperatives. It’s very interesting to see such behavior, which you could describe as “intelligent” in human terms. Obviously, it’s just about chemical reactions of repulsion and attraction since, as I said, there are no neurons, there are no brains. But the slime mold’s behavior is very smart in its particular niche. You see similar intelligent concepts in a virus. In this art project, the slime mold mimics the exponential spread of an even smaller creature which is the behavior of a virus in a much larger biological system: us humans.

Viruses are dead matter, a string of RNA, which is thought to be a precursor of the double-stranded DNA. To become alive, the RNA or DNA strings must get into a host — a bacteria, animal, or human — to attach to a cell, intrude it and then take over the protein system for its own replication. This “hack” will damage or destroy the host over time. Interestingly, current research and technology mimic the same “concept” of the virus by controlling the flow of information in a cell and a biological system to fight the disease and control the virus by vaccines using genome editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 as well as mRNA technology.

It is amazing to see the unbelievably diverse and smart answers evolution produces. We like to see ourselves as the crown of evolution. We think of ourselves as being outstandingly intelligent. And, of course, we are. We are obviously superior in terms of general intelligence in comparison to the slime mold, but it still raises questions: Unicellular organisms were there before us and will also likely outlive us and we are the smartest for only a particular bit of time. We are not very well-equipped to cope with complex and abstract threats. While the purpose of our lives plays a huge and vital role in our self-concept and how we label our direct surroundings, the world, and the universe with us in it, our role in that very universe seems much less important than we used to think, at least in any cosmological terms.

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Another interesting topic is the interaction between physics and biology. We find purpose-oriented behavior in biology at any step, already in the most simple prokaryotic and eukaryotic microorganism and cell arrangements. Any such most simple creatures or units of life have a purpose to do specific jobs for its survival. You find such purpose and goal orientation also in your own body at the most basic cellular level in each different cell component and the jobs they have to do at any step from DNA, the different types of RNA operating in a cell, to the protein machinery, to name some examples. But again, how can we combine physics with biology? How does this random movement get into ordered structures, create life, and goal-specific behavior? Also: How can it withhold entropy for a certain period of time or is entropy overall increasing through life itself even most effectively as some scientists are stating?

Well, that all depends on how you define intelligence or even intentional behavior. While the slime mold certainly gives off an air of intelligence, what we do know is that it loves to feast. I’m glad you mentioned those measures that you could have introduced. And as the experiment and video elapsed, you deliberately allowed it to spread in an uncontrolled manner, representing the U.S. coronavirus response. After months of so many people isolating in their homes, what would you have wanted to see in terms of a coronavirus response in order for you to install a salt barrier or something else to curb the slime mold’s growth?

DS: Of course, you can see it as a critical statement on the current administration and how this pandemic has been handled, undermining science over and over again. Putting things that are very well-researched into the new, very strange approach of just stating opinions rather than staying rooted in facts and evidence.

This is a particularly worrying trend, maybe also a problem that many people are left behind. Because you cannot follow the developments of this time without the options created by education. Or if you’re not self-driven, reading books, informing yourself outside of the very limited setups of Facebook and Twitter which literally can be seen as formats of undermining human intelligence in that sense that they don’t allow for a longer attention span or any depth of content. People that are then detached from educational access and contemporary developments in technology, science with all its current applications, and society, get detached and some seem to find a certain pleasure in making ungrounded statements — displaying simply opinion instead of researched facts with the brute power of just big claims.

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And of course, Trump has been the epitome of this, the singular item of that approach that really undermines a tradition of 200 years grounded in the European Enlightenment, which emphasizes the important role of reason in human intellectual development. The scientific revolution freed mankind from religious dogma and man “dared to know.” We developed a wealth of knowledge building onto each other for centuries, creating the most interesting applications on top of it.

Now such same technologies are being used in very unintelligent applications, authorizing people to make bold claims that are groundless and have devastating impacts on the state of our society. I think that’s very worrying.

Well, let’s talk about how you represented the state we’re in. How did you arrive at the decision to introduce a new mold in the first locations to hit 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per day? I watched the video before I learned that that was your approach, so I had personally wondered why the initial hotspot in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t represented.

DS: Exactly. We are working on a follow-up experiment where we have that threshold lower. These experiments are very difficult to set up, so we have chosen in the first approach a set up with a certain higher threshold for practical reasons. Nevertheless, I think the “HYDRA” video in its current state is really good at expressing the topic in a very convincing manner.

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Society is falling apart, yes, but many people certainly did their part this whole time too.

DS: Democracy needs intelligent people at any level of society and access to education is key for this. Capitalism is driven here to a point where too many essential resources are not part of social solidarity but in particular ‘quality access’ is controlled by financial wealth as in the field of education and the health system too.

You mentioned that you’re working on a follow-up to “HYDRA.” The video you shared corresponds to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. between March and October 2020. How are you approaching the new video now that we find ourselves in a much worse situation than we were in October?

DS: The threshold would be lower. And visually, I think it would not be so different except it has much more Physarum blobs interacting. I decided to come out with this one now because it compresses very much of what could be said on how the spread evolved with a high degree of actuality if you look at the current numbers of the spread and the death rates too.

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I’m planning the second video for an art show where I would work on a large screen presentation, in a big room, entirely dark. You can operate much differently with dramatic timing in such a setting. You can make the initial evolution much slower and speed up when the blobs “explode” as you have different tools to design dramatic features. 

So the follow-up will be more of a realized artistic vision than a sequel.

DS: For the current version of “HYDRA,” I thought this is a very good standalone project to describe the core idea of the project. I think it’s a striking scene, but on the artistic side, I would wish people to sit down for a bit more time and have an immersive experience of this slime mold growing all over. The sound, mimicking ultrasounds of moving microorganisms, will be much more powerful, immersive, and threatening.

It’s a different issue if you watch something on a video on a small screen or presented as an overwhelming aesthetic experience.

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It certainly sounds more unsettling to watch.

DS: Yes, this topic actually refers to an interesting concept, which is the importance of the original of the artwork. German philosopher Walter Benjamin stressed in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” the artwork’s authority as grounded in the unique original art piece. This famous essay stems from the early 20th century, when he was fleeing the Nazis. Benjamin was worried that technical reproducibility would undermine the auratic nature and the authority of an art piece.

He stressed in this sense the on-site, real encounter with art in a site-specific experience. I think you still can generate this, in his words, “auratic” expression, even if it’s created with technological means. But any reproduction, used as a kind of reflection on the original, like a postcard or a video on the internet is very different from going into the personal “corporeal” or physical aesthetic encounter and different from going into a museum to reflect on an art piece as the true experience of the artwork itself. That is obviously also the difference between a video performance on a website and the ongoing experiment of “HYDRA” for an art show. It will for sure appear much more dramatic. Imagine it more like a theatre play building up to a dramatic climax.

After the “HYDRA” follow-up, what’s next for you?

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DS:  I have other projects still running at MIT. One on mathematics and the combination of sports and chaos theory. Another one, for example, on time and space and quantum entanglement. Time in particular I find such a fascinating topic. I always get inspired by reading papers about this subject, which is still one of the most mysterious concepts in physics. Exploring artistic and scientific challenges is like the salt of life for me. It is very inspiring to work on an artistic concept and further down the road meet with collaborators in the search for partners with whom I am able to really realize a project.

That’s everything I planned in advance to ask you about. Is there anything you want to add?

DS: There is one thing that’s maybe not very typical about me as an artist. Many artists reproduce a certain pattern once they’ve found something that works for them artistically. Of course, it can be very interesting to work in series, but I personally try to avoid redundancy and always look for new topics and technologies. I love to surprise myself and I am very much fascinated by always having a completely new endeavor.

The only downside of art /science projects is that it is very very slow. “HYDRA” was a relatively fast project, but the ear project took almost ten years. It’s an insanely slow process. I am jealous of painters! But all the excitement and drive is based to develop something entirely new with inspirational artistic and even sometimes scientific discoveries. That’s the best in life in a professional sense.

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When you’re pursuing a new project that involves an entirely different branch of science, how hands-on do you get? Do you learn the lab skills?

DS: I know in principle how to grow nanotubes. I would not say I would make the blackest one. This is why my work depends so much on being in the company of very, very good scientists. MIT has been the best institution for me and my artwork.

While the artistic concept comes from me, producing the artwork itself is always a collaborative effort and it’s very important with whom you are able to team up if you want to achieve a very strong result. In the end, that’s what the physical art piece is about. There are very wonderful people here at MIT. And they’re truly open-minded, extremely smart, of course, and very accessible for crazy art projects even if you don’t have a big budget or even no budget. Something always evolves!

It is maybe typical for scientists and artists to be very persistent. I think persistence is a very important feature if you want to produce and develop a project that has a certain depth and powerful standing even over the often mandatory long time span. This always involves also a certain risk, since you could end up with nothing for years of work.

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You can win, you can lose. Overall, I was very lucky, last not least through finding the right partners for such complex and unusual projects. It has been also important not to put financial restrictions on any artistic idea and concept. Many artists in Europe, for example, cannot develop certain art-science projects so easily because a budget is needed to even begin with, and science is much further removed, from various reasons, from the scientists’ interest to communicate with the public. But here in America, you can just do anything with a cool and really good idea. You can always find people who truly go for great ideas almost like to “the end of the world!” And that’s why I’m still here and do not regret that I left paradise in Italy.

Editor’s note 12/12/2020: This story has been updated with additional details and clarity from Strebe.

Editor’s note 12/14/2020: This story has been updated with additional details and clarity from Strebe.

Editor’s note 12/28/2020: This story has been updated with additional details and clarity from Strebe.

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